Wat Chedi Luang, the big stupa

Wat Chedi Luang, the big stupa

Table of Contents

Chiang Mai Wat Chedi Luang Songkran
Wat Chedi Luang during the Songkran Festival

History of Wat Chedi Luang

Wat Chedi Luang (Thai: วัดเจดีย์หลวงวรวิหาร, literally: temple of the big stupa) is a Buddhist temple in the old city of Chiang Mai, hopefully the future UNESCO World Heritage area.

We visit the temple during our Chiang Mai Temple Tour. Three temples originally made up the temple grounds: Wat Chedi Luang, Wat Ho Tham, and Wat Sukmin. Wat Chedi Luang dates back to the 14th century. King Saen Muang Ma (1385-1401) started the construction of the chedi in 1391 to bury the ashes of his father. He didn’t complete the pagoda during his reign though. It was the Queen who constructed the upper part of the great pagoda, installed its spire, and gave it its finishing touches.

elephant statues on tower
Elephants on the chedi of Wat Chedi Luang

Construction of the Chedi

Not until the mid-15th century, during the reign of King Tilokaraj (1487-1495), did they finish the construction of the chedi. It was then 82 meters high and had a base diameter of 54 meters: the largest building in the Lanna kingdom. In 1468 they installed the statue of the Emerald Buddha in the eastern niche. In 1545 however, the upper 30 meters of the structure collapsed after an earthquake. Not long after that disaster, they moved the statue of the Emerald Buddha to Luang Prabang.

The design of the chedi seems to have been inspired by a chedi called Ku Phaya in Bagan, Myanmar. I have not been able to find information about this chedi.

In our morning samlor tour we visit the temple. On our after dark samlor tour the temple is beautifully illuminated as you can see on the picture below.

Wat Chedi Luang after dark Chiang Mai Evening Tour by samlor
Wat Chedi Luang after dark samlor

From Ruins to the Reconstruction of the Grand Stupa

Three academics from Silpakorn University in Bangkok conducted research on the collapse of the chedi and on the shape of the chedi, in case it would be restored. They argue that the tunnels beneath the chedi were the cause of its collapse in 1545. The created a virtual image of how the chedi probably looked like before the collapse. They based their virtual image on the shape of the chedis of Wat Chiang Man and Wat Lok Moli, that date back to the same period. You can find a  fascinating article on this study online. The title and link is in our references section at the bottom of this page.

Naga at a ruined chedi with Buddha statue Wat Chedi Luang
Buddha statue at Wat Chedi Luang in 2020. The staircase has disappeared.

The City Pillar (Lak Mueang)

Also on the temple grounds is the city pillar (Lak Mueang) of Chiang Mai, which is named Sao Inthakin. It is an old Tradition that a town or a city has a City Pillar. Inthakin means the pillar of the God Indra. According to a legend the God Indra ordered two of his demons to carry this pillar down from heaven to the Lawa people. These demons became guardians of the pillar, which was buried underground.

The City Pillar of Chiang Mai is buried below this building. The people from Chiang Mai regard the pillar as sacred. It protects the city and grants fertility to the people.

It is worth entering the building, which is on top of the pillar. The murals are beautiful and in the center is a gilded standing Buddha statue. Women are not allowed to enter though, “because they menstruate”, according to an information board that is placed next to the building.

In 1800 King  Kawila moved the City Pillar to the temple. He also planted three trees, to help the City Pillar to protect Chiang Mai. A festival in honor of the City Pillar takes place every year in May and lasts from 6 to 8 days.

Buddhist temple with tree
The City Pillar building at Wat Chedi Luang

The main viharn

The main viharn, facing the main entrance, dates back to 1928. In 1999 it underwent renovation and contains the large standing Buddha image Phra Chao Attarot (“Eighteen-cubit Buddha”), cast in the late 14th century. Behind the chedi is another pavilion housing a reclining Buddha statue.

This viharn is closed at the moment (September 30, 2021) for the time being because of a major restoration. We will keep you posted.

Buddhist temple with ruined chedi
The main viharn and the chedi

The sober and beautiful old Ubosot

You can easily spend an hour at this temple. Apart from the giant chedi there are quite a few other fascinating buildings as well as an interesting museum. One of our favorite places is the old ubosot, the ordination hall. This is the place where new monks are being ordained and other ceremonies take place. This old Ubosot is located behind the giant chedi. It dates back from 1883 and underwent several renovations, in 1948 and 1997. It is not in use anymore. Probably most viharns and ubosots looked as sober as this building. It is beautiful in its simplicity.

The Buddhist Manuscript Library and Museum

The Buddhist Manuscript Library and Museum is closed on Wednesday. It is a beautiful and interesting museum, especially for people who have more than superficial interest in Theravada Buddhism and in palm leaf manuscripts. The museum gives a lot of information and is very well maintained. On the ground floor interesting, historic pictures are exhibited. On the first floor there is information about palm leaf manuscripts and a collection of beautiful, classic palm leaf containers.

The Viharn Luang Pu Mun Bhuridatta

In 2002 the abbot of Wat Chedi Luang laid the foundation stone of this viharn that is dedicated to the Venerable Luang Pu Mun Bhuridatta Mahathera (1850-1949). It contains one of his molar teeth and a statue of this highly respected monk.

He is regarded as the mentor of forest monks and inspired the Buddhist monkhood.

The Viharn Chatumuk Buraphachan

At the back of the compound of the temple is the Viharn Chatumuk Buraphachan. They constructed this assembly hall to enshrine the Buddha relics and ashes of pilgrim forest monks “in the lineage” of the Venerable Luang Pu Mun Bhuridatta Mahathera, according to information at the viharn. What is exceptional is that the design of this pavillion is based on the design of the famous Viharn Phra Chao Pun Ong at Wat Pong Sanuk Tai in Lampang. The Viharn Chatumuk Buraphachan dates back to 2004.

Buddhist temple building
Wat Chatumuk Buraphachan

The chedi before restoration

There are many old pictures of the temple. Some of them you can find in this article on the Travel and History website. These images show the chedi in ruined state, overgrown with vegetation. The Austrian-American botanist Joseph Rock (1884 – 1962) visited Chiang Mai in the 1930s. Besides being an geographer, explorer and linguist Rock was also a keen photographer. He made below picture in 1934.

Old temple with ruined chedi
Wat Chedi Luang in 1934. Photo by Joseph Rock.

Dutch photographer Don Oppedijk

Dutch photographer Don Oppedijk visited Chiang Mai twice in the past century. He visited Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Lamphun and made a trekking into the mountains. You can find his photos on his Flickr page. I have been in touch with Don several times. He kindly allowed us to post his wonderful images of Wat Chedi Luang in 1981 on this website.

Ruined chedi of Buddhist temple Wat Chedi Luang
Wat Chedi Luang in 1981. Photo courtesy of Don Oppedijk.
Ruined chedi under vegetation
The ruined chedi of Wat Chedi Luang in 1981. Photo courtesy of Don Oppedijk.
Ruined temple under vegetation Wat Chedi Luang
The staircase of Wat Chedi Luang in 1981. Photo courtesy of Don Oppedijk.

The reconstruction in the 1990s

In the early 1990s, The local government officially authorized the Fine Arts Department to initiate a conservation project of Wat Chedi Luang, as part of Chiang Mai 700-year celebration. The Fine Arts Department hired the Sivakorn Engineering Company to take responsibility for this project. The budget was 35 million Thai Baht, about 1,4 million USD.

UNESCO and the Japanese government partially funded the restoration but I have not found any evidence of this. Not everyone was pleased with the result of the reconstruction. Quite a few people don’t like the new look of the chedi and prefer how it looked before the reconstruction.

 

Ruined temple
Wat Chedi Luang in 1980. Picture by K.Sira Tuangchaipiti

Some opinons about the restoration

Woralun Boonyasurat wrote that the outcome of the 35 million Thai Baht fund turned to the “tears” of Chiang Mai people. According to her the spirit of place and ownership was disconnected from cultural heritage, which was caused by lack of local participation and public hearing from the people of Chiang Mai. Michael Freeman described the restoration as “aggressive and somewhat imaginitive”.

For the 600th anniversary of the chedi in 1995, a copy of the Emerald Buddha made from black jade was placed in the reconstructed eastern niche. To prevent people from climbing the structure they took out the steps of the Naga staircase, as you can see on below picture.

Thai architect and photographer Sira Tuangchaipiti made the best color pictures of the temple before the restoration. Below photograph shows the chedi in 1979. I made a comparative picture in 2021. As far as the restoration is concerned: judge yourself, I would say.

Restored temple
Wat Chedi Luang after restoration 2021

Where is Wat Chedi Luang?

The Wat Chedi Luang is close to the center of the old walled city. The main entrance is opposite Phra Pok Klao road, just South of Ratchadamnoen road. Entrance for Thai nationals is free. Foreigners pay 40THB per person. The temple grounds are open daily from 0600 until 1800.

References for this article

I also consulted books and websites. These are some of the books:

Sarassawadee Ongsakul, History of Lanna, Chiang Mai, 2005

Michael Freeman, Lanna, Thailand’s Northern Kingdom, Bangkok, 2001

Hans Penth, A brief history of Lanna, Chiang Mai, 2000

Woralun Boonyasurat, The restoration of the Viharn Phra Chao Pun Ong (Viharn of the one thousand Buddhas) at Wat Pong Sanuk, Lampang province: a proposed model for sustainable conservation practice. Silpakorn University, Bangkok, 2009.

Woralun Boonyasurat is Associate Prof. Dr. in the Thai Art Department of the Faculty of Fine Arts of Chiang Mai University

Kreangkrai Kirdsiria, Isarachai Buranautb and Kittikhun Janyaemc, Rajakudakan Wat Chotikaram: From Ruins to The Reconstruction of The Grand Stupa, Wat Chedi Luang, Chiang Mai, SUVANNABHUMI Vol. 13 No. 2 (July 2021)

I am a regular visitor

I have visited the Wat Chedi Luang numerous times over the past ten years.You can find a lot of information in the museum of the temple.

Man with bicycle helmet at temple
Frans at Wat Chedi Luang

The temple features in these tours

%d bloggers like this: